Food in Mexico is delicious, and in and of itself a reason to visit the country. I have already been to Mexico three times – that’s how much I like it – and just the thought of tacos, pozole and tlayudas makes my mouth water.
Mexican cuisine is so good and varied that it’s been declared intangible heritage by UNESCO. Each Mexican state has its ingredients, its dishes, its traditions.
Mexican markets are a burst of life – colorful, full of flavor, people buzzing about. So interesting they are that guided tours of the market (in any Mexican city) are now a trendy thing to do. That, and street food walking tours. I have done a fair share of both, on a mission to try all the most famous local specialties.
Since I want to make sure that you get to enjoy all the food that Mexico has to offer, I thought I’d write a summary of all the most popular Mexican dishes. I will also include a couple of drinks you should have, and a few tips on how to make the most of food in Mexico.
The Best Food In Mexico – All the Dishes You Should Try
Antojitos and Botanas
The word antojitos is used to refer to many things when it comes to Mexican food. Antojo means “sudden craving,” and it can indicate snacks – more or less filling; appetizers (equivalent to tapas and pintxos in Spain) and even plain street food. You’ll regularly see it on the menu in Mexico, and you should try the most famous ones – which I point out below.
Botanas is another word for snack – and once again it really can be anything: a dry snack coming out of a bag, or something more elaborate. Botanas are eaten in-between meals, usually they are associated with sport events, and at times they can be quite filling.
I admit I am hardly a fan of chapulines and that on a few occasions I’ve had to rush out of the market as I found their smell overpowering – though most people would say they hardly smell of anything. I guess I have a very sensitive nose.
Fried grasshoppers are a snack typical of Oaxaca state. They can be mixed with guacamole or eaten by themselves, and they are considered a fantastic accompaniment to Mezcal. You should try them at least once!
The Mexican equivalent to corn on the cob is elotes. Found on virtually every street corner in Mexico, it consists of either steamed, boiled or grilled corn, which can be eaten plain or with a number of dressings. Mexicans love it smothered with mayonnaise and green chilli sauce, and then passed on crumbled cotija cheese. They top it off with chilli sauce or power for good measure. It’s not exactly light, but it’s so tasty!
Gorditas somehow remind me of Colombian arepas. Two pieces of corn dough are put together and then stuffed with pretty much anything you may possibly want – cheese is a typical ingredient. This sort of sandwich is then grilled until hot, so that the cheese melts. It’s a typical street food and oh so good.
Guacamole is probably the most famous Mexican appetizer. Found anywhere in the world, it reaches perfection in Mexico, where it is used as a topping for tacos in street food carts, or made to order at your table at fancy restaurants.
Guacamole is prepared using ripe avocados which are mashed with a fork. Green chopped tomatoes, chilli, finely chopped onion, garlic and coriander are added to it, along with oil, salt and other seasonings. Guacamole is usually served with totopos – fried corn tortilla chips.
Cactus are a common sight in Sardinia, where I come from. We eat the fruit – called prickly pear, and even make sorbet and gelato from it.
The same cactus we have in Sardinia is very common in Mexico, where it is called nopal (nopales for the plural). Mexican eat the fruit, but they have gone way further and they even eat the leaves – which are actually delicious.
They can be eaten raw in salads, boiled, steamed or even fried, added to salads or used as a topping for tacos. I would have never thought that cactus leaves are eatable, but after trying nopales in Mexico I can honestly say they are delicious.
Pambazo is a very soft white bread roll without any real crust that can be found all over Mexico. The name is also used to refer to a sandwich made by filling the roll with either shredded beef, chorizo or pork, fried potatoes, refried beans, grated cheese and then dipped in a red guajillo peppers sauce. It’s not exactly light, but it sure is tasty.
Among the best food in Mexico there are tamales, small balls made with corn dough which is either plain or stuffed with pieces of chicken and pork. It’s wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks then steamed. The sweet version is stuffed with raisin and covered in sugar.
The dough of tlacoyos is similar to that of gorditas. Originating from a place north of Mexico City, they can be found all over the country. Tlacoyos are made using a blue corn dough (now, that is a real delicacy) which is filled with beans, cheese, meat and then fried or grilled. They can be topped with all sorts of ingredients. A winning combination (to me at least) would be avocado, chilli sauce and cheese.
Among my favorite food in Mexico there’s beef barbacoa. This is a shoulder of beef cooked for such a long time that the meat ends up shredding, so moist and succulent it is. It’s a perfect fillingfor sandwiches and even tacos.
Chilaquiles are usually eaten for breakfast. They are made with leftover tortillas which are toasted or fried, then smothered with red or green sauce and topped with just about anything you can imagine – usually eggs, cheese and sometimes even chicken, refried beans and sour cream. They are guaranteed to keep you fueled for hours.
Chiles en nogada
A variation of chile relleno (of which I talk below), chiles en nogada is a dish made with poblano peppers (which are peppers from the region of Puebla) filled with picadillo (a mixture of chopped meat, fruits and spices) and covered in a walnut and cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. According to legend, this dish was first served to Don Agustin de Iturbide, who fought for Mexican freedom and then became the Emperor of Mexico.
If you hadn’t already figured it out, food in Mexico isn’t exactly light. Chile relleno is the perfect example of what I mean: a large, dry chile pepper is stuffed with a mixture of beef and cheese (but you can also find a vegetarian version) and dipped in beaten eggs to then be fried. It’s served with a thin tomato broth.
If you like pork, you really have to try this Mexican dish. Typical of the Yucatan Peninsula where the Mayan used to cook it in the pibil (underground and wrapped in banana leaves) but found across the country, this dish of slow roasted pork consists of pork meat marinated in anatto seeds and then cooking it with oranges. It ends up becoming so soft that it shreds. Try it on tacos or tostadas.
Remember what I said about food in Mexico being on the heavy side. There you go again. Enchilada is used to refer to a tortilla stuffed with all sorts of filling and then rolled and covered in sauce. The most famous ones are the enchilada suizas (Swiss enchiladas) – where the reference to Switzerland probably refers to the copious use of dairy.
Enchiladas suizas are semi-fried corn tortilla filled with chicken, covered in cheese, sauce, sour cream, and topped with onion slices. Expect to have nightmares after eating them – but I bet you’ll think it was worth it.
Another Mexican favorite, flautas are made of flour tortilla which are filled with a choice of ingredients (it can be beef, chicken or cheese) then rolled and deep fried until crispy. It’s served with lettuce and more cheese.
Huevos (eggs) are found on Mexican tables for breakfast – less commonly now, perhaps. This dish has two eggs. One is covered in green sauce, one in red sauce. The dish is served with corn tortillas, totopos and grated cheese and on occasions it includes sour cream and even refried beans.
This is a dish typical of Veracruz. It consists of scrambled eggs which are wrapped in a tortilla and then covered in refried beans which at times may have beef or chorizo in it. They are then topped with sour cream.
Known around the world as “chocolate sauce,” there’s much more to mole than just chocolate. The original recipe of mole remains a mystery. It has a whopping number of ingredients, which include chilli, cocoa, peanuts, spices and herbs. It’s usually poured over chicken, turkey and – in upscale restaurants – even on duck. There are two main versions: mole poblano, from Puebla, which is a deep red, and mole oaxaqueño, from Oaxaca, which is brown.
When I think of food in Mexico, the first dish that comes to my mind is this soup / stew. Found all over the country, it’s typical of the Distrito Federal, Guerrero, Jalisco and Morelos. It’s made with large chunks of meat (usually pork) whole corn, lettuce, sliced radish, chopped onion, and it is served with dry oregano or chili peppers. My favorite kind is the vegetarian one (which is actually vegan, by the way) – you can have it with zucchini flowers and mushrooms.
The Spanish word for cheese is queso. Quesadillas are the Mexican version of grilled cheese, but so much better! The dish consists of grilled corn tortillas with cheese and a choice of other fillings, which can be anything from chorizo to mushroom, onion and even zucchini flowers. The latter ones are my favorite.
I have been wondering whether tacos should be considered a main course or an antojito. I can’t really answer this question – but I can promise you that you’ll have the best tacos in Mexico, and that they are nothing like the ones you get outside of the country.
Tacos are the epitome of street food. Small, soft corn tortillas are topped with meat – chorizo, but also beef or pork and, more rarely, chicken. They are then topped with pico de gallo – a salad made of finely chopped tomatoes, onion and coriander; chilli, nopales, cabbage, guacamole and any other sauce you may possibly want.
The best tacos are the ones “al pastor,” which is literally the shawarma spit which – I bet you didn’t know this – was brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants.
Known as “Oaxacan Pizza,” a tlayuda is a huge corn tortilla, spread with refried beans, guacamole or pieces of avocado, grated white cheese and topped with grilled meat (usually pork chops, but it can also be thin beef slices). It’s usually eaten with your hands.
Mexican dessert are very similar to others that can be found around the world. But who cares, when they are so good?
Arroz con leche
Arroz con leche, or rice with milk pudding, isn’t something you find only in Mexico – in fact, it’s a common dessert in many other countries. But it’s so popular in Mexico that you may as well try it when you visit. The dish is made of rice cooked in milk and sugar, and topped with cinnamon power. You can find the pre-packaged version in all supermarkets, but the best is the freshly made one. It’s a great way to end a glorious Mexican meal.
To be fair, churros are found all over the world and I can’t really say if they are Mexican. But I hate so many of them in the streets of Cancun and in Tulum that they may as well be. They are made of a thick dough that is fried and then sprinkled with sugar. At times they are even topped with chocolate sauce.
Commonly found in Spain, this dessert is made with a thick egg custard made with milk, egg yolks and sugar whisked and then cooked together and then cooled down and refrigerated. It’s served cold and topped with a caramel sauce.
There is no better thing to enjoy Mexican food with a proper Mexican drink. Beer is a local favorite, and you’ll often spot people drinking soft drinks (coke is a favorite) – so much so that these sugary, gassy drinks are one of the main culprits of Mexico’s obesity problem.
I am pretty sure a Mexican friend of mine cooked Atole for me a few times, and she claimed it was a dessert. Most of the time, however, it is served as a drink. It’s made with maize, sweetened with honey and topped with cocoa. Most of the time it’s meant to be drunk hot, but you can also get it cold.
This is the quintessential Mexican drink. Originally from the region of Oaxaca, mezcal is made with agave much like Tequila (which however originates from Jalisco). I recommend going on a Mezcal tour to learn how it’s made and to buy the best kind.
This Mexican cocktail is prepared by mixing beer with lime juice, all sorts of sauces and spices, tomato juice, and chili peppers. It is served in a chilled glass which has been salt-rimmed.
Pulque isn’t easy to find, and chances are you’ll only see it during special events. It’s a drink made of the fermented sap of the maguey plant and honey. It looks a bit like milk, but it’s quite viscous and it tends to be quite sour. I won’t reveal whether I liked it or not. Try it and then tell me what you think!
No drink screams Mexico more than Tequila. Originating in Tequila, a lovely small town in the State of Jalisco, this drink is only made with blue agave leaves. As the plants take forever to grow so that they can be used for Tequila, and the regulations for producing real Tequila are quite strict (there has to be a minimum percentage of alcohol), this tends to be an expensive drink.
My first ever taste of tequila was the way North Americans tend to drink it: a shot followed by salt and lemon. However, Mexicans enjoy their Tequila slowly and often munch on snacks such as chapulines or peanuts while drinking.
5 Tips To Find The Best Food In Mexico
Join a food tour
If you are unsure where to start when trying food in Mexico, you are probably better off joining a guided food tour. You can find tours in every city. I have selected the best for you:
- Mexico City food tour
- Colonia Roma food tour
- Mexico City half day market and street food tour
- Puerto Vallarta cooking class: market tour, tastings and lesson
- Downtown Puerto Vallarta food tour
- Taco adventure evening food tour in Puerto Vallarta
- Cozumel food tour
- Cabo San Lucas downtown food tasting
- Merida market tour and cooking class
- Merida street food walking tour
- Playa del Carmen food tour
Eat where the locals eat
The rule of thumb to eating good food anywhere in the world is to eat where the locals eat, and Mexico is no different. If you see a cart with a line of people waiting for their tacos, that’s probably a good place to stop. The same goes for the market – that’s where you’ll find the best and freshest options. Mexicans often eat at small eateries where for a real steal you’ll get a full meal, including drinks. Restaurants are usually for tourists.
TIP: La Popular, in Mexico City, is a favorite of locals and tourists alike. It’s often crowded, but the good news is that it’s open 24/7. It’s on Quinta Avenida.
Mind the hygiene
One thing you really want to be wary of when eating in Mexico is the hygienic conditions. A place that is crowded is less likely to serve you food that has been left sitting for days in the fridge and that may have gotten contaminated.
Mind the meat
I only know this one too well! Meat isn’t a dangerous food per se, but uncooked pork or chicken are probably the worst things that you could eat and you are almost guaranteed to get food poisoning from them. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to find pork or chicken that aren’t cooked through in Mexico. I recommend to triple check the pork in your tacos is cooked through before biting into them, and it if isn’t send it back and ask for a different one. The same goes for chicken.
Don’t fall for fake Mexican food
There is a huge difference between the food in Mexico and the seemingly Mexican food you’ll find in countries outside of Mexico. Don’t get me wrong – some of these dishes are tasty, and I am the first one to enjoy them. But you will only find them at very touristy spots in Mexico. You should stick for the real thing!
One of my memories from my time in Colorado is coming out of a bar or a club late at night and hearing someone scream “burrito! burrito!” When I first went to Mexico, I was honestly gutted not to see this dish on any menu. Burritos are flour tortilla filled with anything – beans, meat, rice and anything else and then wrapped. The only thing that may resemble a burrito in Mexico is a flauta.
Mind you though: during my last trip, I noticed that a place or two in Tulum served burritos. You know who that restaurant was meant for, right?
I honestly dislike fajitas so I am relieved they are not found on any Mexican menu. This dish is made with thin slices of meat (usually beef, but occasionally also chicken) pan seared with peppers and onions and served on a hot dish, with a side of flour tortilla, sour cream, cheese and guacamole. It’s a typical Tex Mex food.
This is a non-Mexican Mexican food I actually love, but which Mexicans don’t really know about. It’s made with tortilla chips which are topped with abundant quantities of spicy ground beef, jalapeno peppers, refried beans and cheese, then grilled and served with sour cream and guacamole. Not exactly light.
Further readings about Mexico
For more readings about Mexico, make sure to check out these posts:
Further readings about international cuisine
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